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Did McConnell Pressure Judge to Retire to Pave Way for His Unqualified Protégé?

McConnell has made pushing through right-wing judicial picks his top priority even amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wears a mask as he passes through a hallway at the U.S. Capitol on May 4, 2020, in Washington, D.C.

A federal court has requested an investigation into whether Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell unethically pressured a judge on the powerful U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to retire to pave the way for the Kentucky Republican’s 38-year-old protégé Justin Walker, who is set for a confirmation hearing for the vacancy on Wednesday.

The New York Times reported late Monday that on May 1, Judge Sri Srinivasan — chief judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit — “asked Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. to assign another circuit to look into a complaint filed by the progressive advocacy group Demand Justice, which questioned the timing and circumstances of Judge Thomas B. Griffith’s retirement announcement in early March.”

On March 19 (pdf), Demand Justice called on Srinivasan to authorize a “prompt inquiry into the majority leader’s potential efforts to influence Judge Griffith, perhaps through improper means… particularly because it appears that he has attempted to influence many other federal judges, as well.”

The group’s request came days after the Times reported that McConnell — who has made ramming through President Donald Trump’s right-wing judicial picks his top priority even amid the Covid-19 pandemic — “has been personally reaching out to judges to sound them out on their plans and assure them that they would have a worthy successor if they gave up their seats soon.” It is not clear whether McConnell contacted Griffith prior to the judge’s retirement.

In a statement Monday night, Demand Justice urged the Senate to postpone Walker’s scheduled Judiciary Committee hearing in light of Srinivasan’s request for an inquiry.

“Justin Walker’s nomination was already controversial, but this emerging investigation means an even darker cloud is hanging over his appointment,” said Brian Fallon, executive director of Demand Justice. “The hearing on Walker’s nomination should not go forward until we know the truth about what ethical lines Mitch McConnell crossed to get Walker this seat.”

“At the very least,” said Fallon, “McConnell should come clean about whether and when he contacted Judge Thomas Griffith prior to his sudden retirement.”

Walker, a member of the right-wing Federalist Society and former clerk for now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, was rated “not qualified” by the American Bar Association when Trump nominated him to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky last October. The Republican-controlled Senate disregarded the rating and confirmed Walker anyway, and now the judge is on the path to a promotion.

Lena Zwarensteyn, Fair Courts Campaign director with the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said that Walker’s confirmation to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky was “pure nepotism.”

“Walker’s inexperience and hostility toward access to healthcare and civil rights and public protections make him wholly unfit for this position,” said Zwarensteyn. “But equally alarming is the unusual path that has led him to now wield a daunting amount of influence through our courts.”